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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Friday, March 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM

VERRAZANO DEMANDS STEEP TOLL FROM 8 TAMPA BAY DERBY RIVALS...

Well Regarded Pletcher Colt Seeks Bridge To Louisville

A total of nine 3-year olds have signed on for the mile and a sixteenth Grade II Tampa Bay Derby on Saturday. The race features the stakes debut for the highly regarded Verrazano, a son of More Than Ready who has yet to raise a blemish in his brief two race career.

Despite the top two finishers of the final local prep for this (the Grade III Sam F. Davis) Falling Sky and Dynamic Sky returning to take on Verrazano and recent Grade II Hutcheson Stakes winner Honorable Dillon stretching out after his impressive closing tally in that 7 furlong Gulfstream dash, on paper and visually, the morning line favorite looks like the one to beat.

Let’s take a look at the nine contenders from the rail out.

ETON BLUE (20-1) - Was no match for Verrazano when he faced that one in their shared entry level allowance/optional claimer at Gulfstream Park on February 2 when he checked in a 16 ¼ lengths beaten second. Still eligible for that level after three lifetime tries the son of Giant’s Causeway figures to like the two turns in today’s contest better than the one turn mile of the allowance test and has turned in a trio of sharp half mile breezes at Palm Meadows, including a second best of thirty work in :47 flat last Saturday. Trainer Nick Zito sticks with jockey Joe Bravo and would probably be the first to tell you he has no idea how you make up 16 ¼ lengths. But the colt has moved forward in each of his races and he does have enough tactical speed to keep in contact in the early running.  A few weeks ago Pletcher had a colt by the name of Violence, who sat atop many handicappers’ top Derby contender lists yet was handily beaten by Orb in the Fountain Of Youth and has already been retired. Hope springs eternal.

PURPLE EGG (10-1) - After winning the Inaugural Stakes here in his 2-year old finale, the gelded son of Lion Heart ran into a few minor setbacks and trainer Jane Cibelli had to back off plans for an earlier sophomore debut. Apparently over the ailments he has turned in a series of solid 5 furlong breezes. The big question for this guy is whether or not he handles a distance of ground as he not only makes his two turn debut but races beyond 6 furlongs for the first time in his undefeated three race career. Elvis Trujillo, who has a solid 25% success rate from a sizable sample when he teams up with Cibelli, will ride for the first time and given the gelding’s sprint style and sharp works the jockey figures to be with the early pace right from the gate. 

HONORABLE DILLON (6-1) - I tabbed this guy to win and keyed him with the right supporting actors when we collected on all the bets in the Grade II Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park five weeks ago. I knew the Tapit colt was a good thing that day but obviously so did the sharpest bettors on the Derby Prep Trail because he was sent off at 5-2 that day...down from an 8-1 morning line. He sat off the pace, moved late and lasted in the 7 furlong test and now looks to extend that kick further as he joins a number of rivals who are going two turns for the first time. Trainer Eddie Kenneally has to be confident that the bloodlines dictate he’ll easily get the distance under new rider Corey Lanarie, who rides a number of horses for the conditioner.  His workmanlike trials at Palm Meadows since the Hutcheson indicate he has held his form and makes a strong case for his showing up in the gimmicks.

JAVA’S WAR (12-1) - Is this guy the sleeper? The son of War Pass makes his 2013 debut following five juvenile races, two of which were run at today’s mile and a sixteenth distance. Other than returning from a layoff, which isn’t insurmountable given trainer Ken McPeek’s solid 19% success rate with 90 day plus layoffs, the only question that needs to be answered is how he’ll fare on conventional dirt. The first three races of his career were run on the turf in which he broke his maiden vs special weights when stretched out to a mile in start number two and followed that up with a win in the 75K Sunday Silence Stakes at Louisiana Downs. McPeek next sent him to finish a strong rallying third behind Dynamic Sky’s (who finished second in the Sam F. Davis and is in here) second in the Grade I Breeders’ Futurity over the Keeneland synthetic surface. In his final juvenile attempt he was away slowly and got caught 6 wide when trying to make up ground in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs. Whether he is only a turf/synthetic type runner or can also handle conventional dirt gets answered today. But if his last two 5 furlong breezes over the Gulfstream park surface are any indication (a second best of thirty three in :59 1/5 on 2/24 and a best of thirty three in :59 4/5 on 3/2) he might very well be ready to join the fray.

DYNAMIC SKY (4-1) - The rally by the Mark Casse trained son of Sky Mesa fell a neck short of catching the front running Falling Sky when the two met here in the Sam F. Davis at this same distance on February 2. If weight is a factor then by virtue of dropping that neck decision, under the allowance conditions of the race the colt will get 4 pounds from Dynamic Sky this time around. But what also seems advantageous is the prospect of a lot more pace this time around for the late running colt. Another plus is that Casse has engaged the services of Joel Rosario to replace Luis Contreras. If the jockey can get the same effort out of Dynamic Sky as he got out of Vyjack (when he replaced Cornelio Velasquez aboard that one and piloted a strong off the pace victory in the Gotham last Saturday) there is no reason to be surprised if he comes calling late. The colt has not missed a step in practice, having turned in three sharp five furlong breezes since the Davis and has to be considered a major player.

VERRAZANO (4-5) - Remember, the odds-maker posts the number based on what he or she projects the number that the public will bet to by post time. Is Verrazano that much better than his opponents? We’ll know by about 5:20 (E) on Saturday, but looking at the lines from his two career races, it isn’t unlikely that the odds-maker is going to be wrong. The son of More Than Ready, a 250K yearling purchase by Let’s Go Stable/Michael Tabor/Derrick Smith/Susan Magnier easily dispatched his rivals in winning a 6 ½ furlong MSW debut at Gulfstream on New Year’s Day by 7 ¾ widening lengths. He came back 32 days later to annihilate 4 rivals when he turned in a 1:3 4/5 mile allowance tally by 16 ¼ lengths. He has been incredibly impressive and has continued to shine in his morning works. He will be ridden by regular rider John Velazquez and if he wasn’t already holding a number of aces, will also carry only 118 pounds under the allowance conditions of this race. He has terrific tactical speed and even if contested early should be able to put away any early competition before attempting to stay clear of the late arrivals. He is a half bother to another precocious, lightly raced and well thought of young runner by the name of El Padrino, who was also trained by Todd Pletcher and who went on to turn an impressive allowance win into a Risen tar Stakes triumph in 2011. It is also worth noting that El Padrino also sort of disappeared after his overwhelming early success. So I suppose that is why there are always opponents for young horses even as supposedly unbeatable as Verrazano. All that being said, he’ll either have to throw in a clinker or one of his opponents will have to run the race of his career to beat him. But that is why they show up isn’t it.

OFFLEE FAST (30-1) - The Ronald Pellegrini colt broke his maiden on the grass in his second of three career starts on January 13 at Gulfstream Park. The front running son of Offlee Wild next finished a head beaten second over a sloppy main track after making the pace into the stretch in the mile and a sixteenth entry level allowance/optional 75K claimer. Ridden by regular rider Zozbin Santana the colt figures to be another that will guarantee an honest pace. But given that he has yet to crack an 83 BRIS speed number he appears to be in as deep as his 30-1 ML would indicate.

PARK CITY (12-1) - This is another lightly run and undefeated unknown commodity and another from the deep Todd Pletcher barn. The son of Harlan’s Holiday broke his maiden in July at Saratoga, rallying sharply in a sloppy 5 furlong MSW affair. He was then off the track until he returned in a 6 ½ allowance/optional 75K claimer on February 9. Once again he broke off the pace, tracked in fourth and made a strong run up the rail to take the lead and last over two rivals. He has worked well since his second tally and given his breeding (out of a Sea Hero mare) should be able to handle two turns and the distance. He will have to move forward to gain a minor award, but if much of the speed falls apart trying to battle Verrazano he might be able to claim that piece. Edgar Prado takes over for Velazquez, who of course rides the favorite.

FALLING SKY (10-1) - Not only will the Sam F. Davis front running winner have to try and outrun much of the speed inside of him in order to gain a comfortable forward position, but he and Java’s War are the only Stakes Winners in the race so joins that one in giving all the other runners, including Verrazano and Dynamic Sky, who he held off by a neck in the Sam F. Davis, 4 pounds. That being said, it is noteworthy that the son of Lion Heart, who was purchased for $425,000 by his current owners just 15 days prior to the Davis win has worked strongly since that victory and is one of the handful of runners that trainer John Terranova has spotted well at Tampa Bay (13-6-1-2 at the current meet.) After breaking on top and holding a length margin down the backstretch and on the turn in the Davis Falling Sky took command in mid-stretch and opened up a two length lead. Inside the sixteenth pole he drifted out and managed to hold onto a neck margin. Considering that he was racing beyond 6 ½ furlongs for the first time, racing for the first time since December 15 and running for a new trainer who only had him for two weeks, the colt turned in a credible performance. There is every reason to believe he is a legitimate contender for a piece of this race. Jose Espinoza, who has won 30% of his Tampa tries, takes the return engagement.  


GOLDENCENTS AND FLASHBACK HAVEN’T SCARED OFF ALL OF THEM...

A Field Of Eight Makes For A Contentious San Felipe Stakes

Given the recent wins by Goldencents in the Grade III Sham and Grade III Delta Jackpot and commanding Grade II Robert B. Lewis triumph by Flashback, one can be forgiven if they expected another of those short 4-5 horse three-year old stakes fields that Santa Anita is infamous for.

Luckily, however, this time around the two sharp 3-year olds haven’t scared off all of the local prospects. Bob Baffert is quickly turning around Carving, who was steadied and disappointed in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate three weeks back and Jerry Hollendorfer sees every reason to test the two favorites with his improving Ghostzapper gelding Hear The Ghost. Also entering the fray are recent California Breeders Challenge winner and runner up Tiz A Minister and Omega Star as well as impressive last out MSW winner Salutos Amigos and Michael Pinders’ Lion Heart colt Kochees.

It is definitely nice to have a three-year old Santa Anita Derby prep from which some value can be extracted, so let’s take a look at the field from the rail out.

CARVING - Bob Baffert was certainly looking for a better 3-yer old debut than the one he got when the Any Given Saturday colt was steadied sharply at the furlong market while in the midst of a rally in the Grade III El Camino Real at Golden Gate three weeks ago. It was the first start since the colt was a well beaten 6th in the Grade I Cash Call Futurity in his final juvenile start. A winner of three of his first four career starts, including the $100K Real Quiet Stakes at Betfair Hollywood Park on November 10, there have been more than enough flashes to indicate that this guy might still have his best in front of him. Rafael Bejarano takes the assignment for the first time and seeing that the colt was much more successful earlier in his career when he broke closer to the pace, it might be expected that the rider would utilize that tactic as he breaks from the rail right behind what would appear to be an early throw-down by the two favorites that will leave right beside him.

FLASHBACK - The other of the uncoupled Baffert entrants, Flashback seemed to answer both his distance and maturity questions as he took immediate control of the Grade II Robert B. Lewis on February 2. He went right to the front in the mile and a sixteenth event and under regular rider Julien Leparoux steadily pulled away to a 6 ¼ driving lengths. Given the moderate fractions of the race it amounted to little more than a workout and seeing that Baffert has had him out 4 times since the Lewis and that the son of Tapit has blistered the Santa Anita surface with a 1:11 flat 6 furlongs on 2/25 and a 5 furlong best of sixty four in :59 flat this past Sunday, the colt may not have come close to running his top. If Leparoux reverts to the colt’s debut race, in which he won from off the pace by 3 widening lengths in a 7 furlong test he might get the advantage over key rival Goldencents, who has indicated in each of his four career races that he wants to be on the lead or just off the flanks of the leader in the early going. His first two races and his works indicate he has the perfect combination of fitness, versatility and speed.

GOLDENCENTS - Doug O’Neil can’t be faulted if he is thinking about another trip to Louisville in 2013. However, should this son of Into Mischief move forward and entre the gates for the Derby he’ll likely carry higher hopes than the trainer’s 2012 upset winner I’ll Have Another. So far the only chink in the armor over the course of his four race career was a sharp second in the Grade I Champagne Stakes at Belmont last October. But considering that the colt shipped east following his MSW debut tally and was bested only by subsequent Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Shanghai Bobby, it might be considered his best effort. Nonetheless he followed up the Champagne with a confidence building front running victory in the Grade III Delta Jackpot and then conquered his rivals in the Grade III Sham Stakes here when he made his sophomore debut with a front running win on January 5. O’Neill has given the colt a 9 week break and sends him out following five straight bullet 6 furlong works since January 26. You read that correctly...five straight 6 furlong bullets works...all clocked at between 1:10 1/5 and 1:13 2/5 with the last two being at 1:10 2/5 and 1:11 3/5.) Much can be made of needing racing for foundation but when a young colt works like that...maybe incorporating freshness into the equation isn’t such a bad idea. Just as O’Neill did last year, when he stuck with relatively unknown jockey Mario Gutierrez on I’ll Have Another, the trainer is keeping Kevin Krigger on Goldencents. Probably the one to beat.

KOCHEES - Ambitious entry for the Michael Pinder trained son of Lion Heart, but the colt is nominated to the Derby and following a trio of sharp works at Betfair Hollywood Park after a disappointing fourth in his second career start in an entry level allowance/optional claimer back on January 31, this is as good a spot as any to find out what he has. With horses entered by Baffert, Hollendorfer, O’Neil and Shirreffs one can be forgiven if they overlook Pinder, but it is worth noting that the conditioner has won 19% of his 37 starters at the meet with over 50% hitting the board and from 34 graded stakes starters has a 26% win rate and a plus $3.26 R.O.I. It is not out of the question to consider him for a wakeup call and a minor award.
HEAR THE GHOST - The son of Ghostzapper will have to move forward in a number of ways if he wants to have an impact in here. The Jerry Hollendorfer trainee is certainly bred to get two turns and was impressive in closing ground for the place in the San Pedro Stakes here on January 26. But that was just the second race of his career after breaking his maiden in his debut and both races have been run at 6 furlongs. Hollendorfer has a penchant for stretching them out as his 22% first route mark would indicate and Cory Nakatani takes over for the first time, but in order to factor he’ll have to step up and become as good as his sire and do so in a hurry. He should get experience and some additional stamina, but that would appear to be the extent of it as he is definitely in deep.

TIZ A MINISTER - By far the most seasoned runner in the race, the Minister’s Wildcat colt has faced the starter 9 times and posted a 2-4-1 slate. The Cal-Bred was last seen winning the restricted California Breeders Challenge with a strong deep rally over a wet-fast surface here at one mile. Although his competition has been softer and it did take him six tries to break his maiden, he does seem to be maturing an improving at the right time and it can’t be argued that trainer Paul Aguirre hasn’t given him plenty of foundation. If he manages to avoid a "bounce" off his last (the 98 BRIS speed number he garnered in the race was the first in his career over 89) he could be considered for a minor prize. Garret Gomez, who climbed aboard for the first time to get the Challenge win takes the return assignment.

SALUTOS AMIGOS - A last out MSW winner in his third try the son of Salute The Sarge will likely be among the pace setters or even on the front for a half mile given the speed he has shown in his three MSW sprints. How far he goes remains to be seen but at some point before the far turn he will probably be chewed up by his classier opponents. This is definitely a tough spot, going two turns and against winners for the first time appears to be a demanding challenge which he will find difficult to answer.

OMEGA STAR - Like his fellow Cal-Bred Tiz A Minister, this son of Candy Ride exits the California Breeders Challenge Stakes in which he rallied sharply to take the lead at the sixteenth pole and then gave way grudgingly while holding on to the place. Where he might have an edge over his conqueror from that race is that it was only his third career start and first beyond 6 ½ furlongs so he probably has a bigger upside at this point. Whether or not he will vault high enough in that upside to place among the top ones in here remains to be seen but his breeding suggests distance is no problem and maturity is a very real prospect. In addition, trainer John Shirreffs has reached out to Joe Talamo, since Julien Leparoux will of course stay with Flashback. Nonetheless, he is another that would not be a complete surprise if he jumps up to grab third or fourth money.

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